A trip to “the jungle:" the story of two homeless couples who live by the Missouri River

Dec. 28, 2015, 6:45 a.m. ·

The riverside campsite of two homeless couples (photo by Mike Tobias/NET News)

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About 10,000 people are homeless in Nebraska each year. They get to this point in many different ways. Mike Tobias of NET News visited one group of Nebraskans to learn how a riverside tent camp became their home.

Mary shows the tent she shares with Justin. (all photos by Mike Tobias, NET News)

Inside the tent shared by Rickie and Jennifer.

Rickie and Jennifer.

Justin and Mary.


Housing Nebraska's homeless,a dn how one Omaha couple got out of a tent camp (7/29/2015)

Counting and caring for Nebraska's homeless population (2/25/2015)

How one Marine helped another get home, and a look at homeless veterans in Nebraska (12/15/2014)


Sarah Hughes works with the homeless for her job with Heartland Family Service. She talks about working with Rickie and Jennifer, Justin and Mary.

HUGHES: I’ve been working with both couples for about four months. I met them at different times, at different places, and they’ve kind of connected, so it makes my job easier in locating them. I’m working on housing on all four. All of them have unique situations, so their paths are going to be different, but they’ve been working together, so it’s been kind of interesting. But the goals of housing are totally different. One of them has lots of kids.

MIKE TOBIAS, NET NEWS: Is their story common, or is there a common story when you’re dealing with homeless people?

HUGHES: No, I think everybody’s story’s unique, and you have to remember when doing this that everybody’s out here for a different reason. But you treat them all the same. I’m going to treat them all with empathy and respect and help them with housing, if that’s what they need help with or whatever I’m helping them with on the street. My ultimate goal would be to house everybody because I think that’s a right that people should have housing. But in some cases, people aren’t ready, so I’ll just be there for them and be an engagement piece in their life until they’re ready for housing.

TOBIAS: It struck me a little bit with Rickie when he said that for 23 years he’s lived on the streets.

HUGHES: Yeah, it becomes a cycle and it’s so hard to get out of sometimes, and then a lot of these guys that are down in this area, they get in a little culture and it’s kind of like their own street world, their street names. They get caught up in that lifestyle, some people do. The other couple down there is newly homeless, but they’re already getting caught in this cycle of the street world.

TOBIAS: Do you want to get them out of there before they get too far into that cycle?

HUGHES: That’s what we want to do, yes. Because the longer someone is homeless, the harder it is for them to adjust back to it. But I mean they all want housing. So we want to help house them.

My visit to “the jungle” starts in a parking lot near downtown Omaha. I’m with a half dozen social services workers tasked with finding and counting the city’s homeless population on a warmer-than-normal January night. Finding Rickie and Jennifer, Justin and Mary, that was the easy part; the two couples met us in the lot for a pre-arranged trek to their camp.

“We got a fire pit and we got a fire going,” Rickie tells us.

We climb through a gap in a chain link fence, then by the light of a couple small flashlights walk and talk for about half a mile on a makeshift trail along the Missouri River. Justin, late 20s and sporting a Batman ball cap, points out a light on the Iowa side of the river. It’s a camp fire warming another group of homeless people.

“There’s people that sleeps over there too,” Justin says. “We hear them all the time. All the time, way over there.”

While we walk, Justin and his friend Mary tell me they’ve lived down here since last September. Rickie and his wife Jennifer say they came a month earlier. Jennifer’s in her late 20s. Rickie has the weathered look of someone who says he’s been living in shelters or on the streets for 23 of his 41 years.

“This is our jungle, of a home, Rickie says. “This what you call it? The jungle?” I ask. “Yeah. The jungle,” Rickie replies.

“Actually, the funny thing is in our area, we actually, we consider like the part where we go into is the driveway. The wall is the sidewalk,” Jennifer adds. “If the fire’s really going at night, we have a pet beaver that will come and sit between me and my husband. ‘Hey, I’m toastin’ too.’ He won’t try to eat us or bite us whatever.”

“So we don’t need no buzz saws or nothing,” Rickie says. “We already got a buzz saw here that can do it all you know.” “The beaver takes care of your firewood?” I ask. “He takes care of it,” Rickie says.

We leave the trail and pick our way through branches and brush to the riverside camp, where some of that firewood is burning in a rusty, sawed-off oil can. A propane lantern provides light, so does the casino across the river. “It’s actually a cool spot,” Justin says. “When the casino has like bands that are playing (outside), you can actually hear it from where our tent is.”

“I mean it’s the coolest spot,” Justin adds. “Get away from everything. You know what I’m saying. You have your own peaceful time. Get away from the drama and everything like that.”

Milk crates and stumps serve as tables and chairs, and each couple has their own nylon tent. Mary, in her early 40s, shows me the tent she calls home with Justin.

“What’s it like down here when it’s been really cold?” I ask. “To stay warm, bundle together with our comforters on,” Mary says. “Can you stay warm?” I ask. “Uh huh. Actually it’s pretty warm. I’m shocked. The night that we had that first snow storm or the blizzard where the wind was like really heavy, we were warm. We didn’t even know it was snowing out,” Mary says, laughing.

Jennifer gives me a quick tour of her and Rickie’s tent, with equipment stored in one section, blankets and pillows on the other.

“Sometimes we have to wear our overalls to bed. That’s how cold it is,” Jennifer says. “Are there other options for you guys?” I ask. “Not currently me. I got ban and barred from one of the shelters, and my husband, he will not do it, because since I can’t be there he won’t be there.”

Jennifer tells me she was kicked out of a shelter for fighting, and talks about getting out of prison four years ago, then meeting Rickie. “He took me down to Arkansas to meet his mom and help take care of her for three years,” Jennifer says. “Came back up here, knowing that this is how he lives. But of course you know how love is, and so I went ahead and decided, ‘OK I can handle this out for a few months,’ not thinking it’s going to last eight months altogether. So it’s been rough, but we handled it.”

“It’s not always because we waste our money on alcohol, or waste our money on drugs. It’s not that,” she continues. “It’s just sometimes we don’t have enough money or funding for housing, or a job. Like me and my husband, he can’t work because he had an injury to his arm. So he has a hard time gripping things. Me, I can’t do like large huge crowds. I get anxieties, and just I can’t work. But other than that, we try.”

Do you have some sort of job right now?” I ask Jennifer. “Basically working for friends.” “And your husband?” I ask. “Same thing.”

Food stamps and other aid provide basic necessities for both couples. Donating plasma provides a little money. Standing by the fire, Rickie tells me someone stole all their food a week earlier, leaving only crackers, peanut butter and jelly. “People come down and rummage while we’re gone,” he says.

I ask Rickie to describe a typical day. “When we wake up, me, Bee (Justin’s nickname), Mary, and my old lady, my wife, we get up, sit out here for a little bit, have our cigarette, or drink a pop or KoolAid. Then we’ll get dressed and then go up out through the path, all the way back down and head up to the library, sit there, chill with our friends, go through the Old Market, walking around and everything. After that, we’ll end up at Cubbys (a downtown convenience store) and we’ll do the same thing. After that, about I’d say about six or seven, we’ll start heading down here.”

Ricky tells me about growing up in North Omaha and problems with homeless shelters. He mentions going downhill after his ex-wife and sons were shot, but doesn’t want to say more about that. He rolls up his sweatshirt sleeve to reveal visible scars from a construction job accident.

“My arm. I can show you right here. See it.” “What’s that from?” I ask. “In 2012 I got into a auger down at the Qwest Center down here in Omaha, the new one. My arm slipped in,” Rickie says, then talking about surgeries that followed.

Justin joins us by the fading fire to share his story. He’d been living with a cousin before moving down here with Mary when she lost her house.

“As a child I was growing up, bad home, bad environment, you know, everything like that, “ Justin says. “In and out of jail here and there you know. But after that, I graduated. you know. Everything went good from there until a bad relationship.”

Rickie and Justin talk about the community they have formed in the months down at “the jungle.” Justin calls it “a big-time family.” Rickie adds that “last week, Mary’s mom went into the hospital and we got a call about it, so we all went to the hospital and everything, and we saw her go up in her room, talked to her and stuff.”

Our visit to the jungle is nearly over, but I’m curious about why all four who call this home - Rickie and Jennifer, Justin and Mary - were anxious to share their world, and stories about the bad luck, bad situations, bad decisions that got them here.

“They just don’t understand, so they’re like well, we’re criminals or we’ll steal,” Jennifer explains. “But my husband, we do not, and so it’s kind of hard for people to understand what we go through.”

“I just want people to know, you know what I’m saying, it’s a struggle out here and everything, but I’ll never give up, keep striving forward, for any possible goal that you want to live for,” Justin adds.

NOTE: Since this visit in January, Rickie and Jennifer have moved off the streets and into an apartment. (Find out how they're doing in this follow-up story from July 2015)

Editor's note: This story is part of our "Best of 2015" Signature Story report. The story originally aired and was published in February 2015.